Air Force ISR aims for maximum insight

With a goal of delivering decisive advantage by providing and operating integrated, cross-domain intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities in concert with service, joint, national and international partners, Air Force ISR's activities touch all tactical echelons.

Headquartered at Lackland Air Force Base, Tex., Air Force ISR (formerly known as the Air Intelligence Agency), is aligned under the Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance as a field-operating agency.

Air Force ISR organizes, trains, equips and presents assigned forces and capabilities to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for combatant commanders and the nation. The agency also implements and oversees execution of Air Force headquarters policy and guidance to expand ISR capabilities to meet current and future challenges. The agency has almost 17,000 people serving at approximately 65 locations worldwide.

"It's certainly a broad mission," said Lt. Gen. Larry James, the Air Force's deputy chief of staff for ISR. "It really cuts across the spectrum, from the tactical to the operational to the strategic."

ISR Collection and Distribution

ISR data is supplied to analysts and other users across the Defense Department and with international partners in a variety of forms, including signal intelligence, video from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and wide-area motion imagery (WAMI) from sensors that are placed on various types of manned and unmanned aircraft to image small city-sized areas.

The Air Force uses an array of aircraft for both high-altitude (U-2 and RQ-4) and medium-altitude (RC-135, MC-12 and MQ-1/9) ISR, as well as a number of space-based platforms that feed information into Air Operations Centers (AOCs) supporting combatant commands (COCOMs), noted John Brennan, vice president of the Air Force business unit at TASC, a Chantilly, Va., company that provides several types of ISR services to the federal government. "These AOCs are manned by active-duty, guard and reserve airmen and coalition partners who are responsible for using this information to provide timely, critical intelligence to the commanders and their operational forces," he said.

Air Force ISR capabilities have matured considerably over the past 5 to 10 years. "The reliance on remotely piloted aircraft has grown exponentially, and space continues to grow in importance," Brennan said. "A major difference in today’s ISR capability is that most combat aircraft and many support aircraft are also flying sensors and contribute to battlespace awareness as an ISR information source."

Another significant change is the manner in which the Air Force acquires and deploys new technology. "In the past, sensors and airplanes were purchased as one system, which required long lead times for deployment," Brennan said. "Today, the Air Force acquires sensors and airplanes as separate, interchangeable components." With this change, Air Force ISR is embracing a more cost-effective and efficient process that enables the rapid deployment of innovation in the field.

James said that Air Force ISR is increasingly looking to commercial technology developers and suppliers for systems, components and direction. "We want to utilize commercial industry capability to develop tools to process video, to do metadata tagging of the data... those sorts of things," James said. "They can also be our gateway ... to understand what's out there, does it really work, does it meet our needs?"

Staying on Top

Air Force ISR stays on top of its mission in two basic ways. "The first is through direct liaison and relationships with combatant commanders and senior military leaders in the field (including senior Joint Staff and Air Force leaders) to gain a first-hand understanding of the warfighter’s requirements," Brennan said. "The other is through the more deliberate formal-requirement planning process instituted by DOD and the Joint Staff."

At the highest level, Air Force ISR works directly with the Joint Functional Component Command for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (JFCC-ISR) to influence the allocation and apportionment of Air Force ISR assets to the COCOMs. "The Air Force’s primary interest is to ensure [that] joint direction is realistic and sustainable," said William Brei, lead ISR subject matter expert for Intelligent Software Solutions, a custom software provider serving the federal government, based in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"The Air Force has had to devise creative solutions or make difficult resource decisions to support JFCC-ISR tasking, but this tasking directly reflects validated COCOM intelligence needs," Brei said. "At another level, Air Force ISR is completely responsive to the Joint Forces Commander’s direction and guidance in the joint planning and execution of military operations—to include minute-by-minute changes in intelligence needs that prompt frequent and immediate diversions from tasked missions during the execution phase of operations." At the lowest in this schema, Brei observed, Air Force ISR leadership actively seeks opportunities to improve the enabling processes, technologies and training that their analysts must employ to maintain the warriors’ edge.

By working closely with the Air Force Research Lab, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and various national labs and industry, Air Force ISR stays in tune with state-of-the-art and the state-of-the-possible developments in science, technology and engineering. "Industry partners play a significant role through government funding of science and technology and research and development projects, as well as through corporate independent research and development (IRAD) investments that are then presented to the Air Force for consideration," Brennan said.

Air Force ISR has a comprehensive, thorough process for determining the potential and viability of new technologies, Brennan said. "A core element of their success is their assessment of ISR capabilities across the DOD and intelligence communities, which allows them to identify best-in-class practices, as well as gaps in their own capability."

The Air Force ISR acquisition program uses several levels of decision authority for new technologies. At the top level, Air Force’s Capabilities Planning and Analysis process is informed and guided by strategic direction provided by the White House, the National Security Council, Congress, DOD, the intelligence community and others.

"It's a pretty big task, but we're trying to get our arms around what indeed is out there that can address ISR-specific problems or that, perhaps with some tweaking, could possibly address an ISR-specific problem," James said.

Facing Challenges

Air Force ISR, like other organizations involved in maintaining national security, needs to process and manage massive amounts of data. "Today, the biggest limiting factor in the processing of ISR data is the requirement for a 'man in the loop,'” Brennan said. "Air Force analysts turn space-based imagery, signals intelligence, full-motion video and other data into timely and actionable information for the combatant commanders and the warfighters in the field." Yet the sheer volume of data received from a rapidly expanding number of sources threatens to overwhelm analysts.

"Technical advances in unmanned aircraft systems and new generations of sensors have been remarkable," Brei said. "The Achilles heel to this is our ability to process and make sense out of all the new data these systems would deliver."

Yet training and hiring more analysts and then providing them with state-of-the-art systems becomes a major quest in an era of constant belt-tightening. "Fiscal constraint is the most clear and present danger that we see on a daily basis to ISR activities," said A.J. Clark, president of Thermopylae Sciences and Technology, an Arlington, Va., company that develops ISR technologies for the military.

Looming budget constraints also create another problem. When funding was abundant, Air Force ISR, like other government intelligence gathering organizations, was largely free to pursue virtually any technology that it felt could contribute to its mission. This is no longer true. "In today’s austere budget environment, we must reduce our inventory to what is critical," Brennan said.

The new fiscal reality is creating a dilemma for Air Force ISR. "On the one hand, older systems that are no longer affordable or sustainable are being phased out," Brennan said. "On the other hand, with the current budget concerns, there is not a lot of money to pursue new initiatives and technologies."

The result is that systems that would normally have reached the end of their service life must continue to support warfighters as long as they remain affordable and sustainable. "In today’s integrated environment, we will find new uses for technologies that we consider 'older,'" Brennan said.

"We upgrade, versus just retiring," James said. "We just continue to modernize and upgrade these systems as the requirements dictate."

Looking Forward

Budget cuts or not, in a rapidly changing world Air Force ISR needs to stay nimble and flexible. "The new expeditionary doctrine as laid out earlier this year by the secretary of defense requires that ISR assets be more mobile," Brennan said. "They also will need to have a smaller forward-deployed footprint so that they can be effectively deployed in regions that will go 'hot' over shorter periods of time."

James sees three major factors challenging Air Force ISR over the next few years. "One is sorting out how you move from a permissive environment of operations like Afghanistan and Iraq—from an airborne platform perspective—to a non-permissive environment, what we call an Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) environment," he said. "Developing the systems, tactics, techniques and procedures, all of those things that we need to do in order to operate in that A2AD environment, that's certainly something that we're looking at and developing capabilities for."

The second challenge is finding enough money to improve and expand data networks and related information-delivery systems. "We want to make sure we have a holistic architecture that's put together to very capably support this ISR enterprise," James said. "That's an area that we're working on."

The third challenge is developing enhanced processing, exploitation and dissemination tools, despite likely budget cuts. "The data just continues to grow, but the number of people we have ... does not," James said. "We really have to rely on the tools and technology to manage the data, to process the data, to fuse the data, and really to present the analyst with information that he can then operate on to develop his analysis and his conclusions without spending all his time just trying to manage data."

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